The NS Profile - Yevgeny Primakov

The secretive, unscrupulous and popular prime minister who has his eye on Yeltsin's crown

As all America knows, the show must go on - nowhere more than in the circus big top that is Washington in season. No exception, therefore, as the nation's capital welcomes plane-loads of Nato government delegations, teeming into town to celebrate, a little eerily, the alliance's 50th anniversary. Also present will be many from Nato's subsidiary organisation, the Partnership for Peace - although not, apparently, its largest member, the Russian Federation and its prime minister, the former academic, diplomat and icon of the Soviet intelligence establishment, Yevgeny Primakov.

Primakov's likely absence is cataclysmic. Some fear him. Few dispute he has the cold war in his veins. Not just that, but since becoming prime minister he has shown himself a worthy practitioner of Soviet-style histrionics, shown by the haughty recalling of ambassadors from Washington and London over Desert Fox, and the even more imperious turning back of his White House-bound jet in mid-air to return to the Kremlin. Close your eyes. Think of Albert Broccoli. Nobody does it better.

He'd be a stupendous Bond villain. Jowly, Siberian fir-tree robust, outwardly taciturn, Primakov fits every stipulation for demonisation. His private charm, by all accounts, would fit him even more for any piranha-breeding role. Yet according to the British former foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, the dour, expressionless exterior can lift swiftly to reveal a lightness of touch and a sense of humour that marks him out as no orthodox Soviet foreign operative. He is secretive, complicated, Le Carre-addicted - word was that on a visit to Downing Street, Primakov insisted on his favourite best-selling author joining the throng. But those who know him say he is, though no sentimentalist, not a dangerous man. Meanwhile millions of Russians, not known for their admiration of politicians, appreciate him. The pollsters concur. Primakov, despite a wobbly past few days under thinly veiled fire from Boris Yeltsin, has emerged, despite his own denials, as the front-runner to succeed his boss.

Western policy-makers should take careful note. Despite the outlandish complications of his personality, Primakov, a few months short of his 70th birthday, represents the best chance in Russian politics for at least relative common sense in global top-table relations. This, despite some of his career credentials, which make disturbing reading. There were the long decades spreading the Soviet gospel (and arms shipments) through the Middle East, the maintenance of what is now a 30-year friendship with Clinton's other bete noire, Saddam Hussein, and more recently the careful preservation of Russia's foreign spy network from potential demolition in the early 1990s. But now peer a little more closely.

From a distance he does indeed resemble the traditional Soviet blue-blood. But it is precisely for this outward pedigree - equipping him with a blend of Brezhnev-era cynicism and the rhetoric to play to the barrack rooms at home - that Primakov should be most enthusiastically courted. Here, finally, stands a Russian leader able to command and maintain support both in parliament and nationwide, helped greatly by his stately, unmistakably Soviet bearing and unflappability. The magic, so far, has been effective. Even his closest electoral rival, the pug-faced mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, would lose a presidential run-off by nearly 20 per cent. Given his Jewish antecedents and Russia's soaring anti- Semitism, his national pre-eminence is frankly extraordinary.

Herein lie his strengths. Born fatherless in the Ukraine, educated in Tbilisi, Primakov soon proved himself outstanding in academic terms - and even more so as a social tactician. He emerged from a war-hit boyhood to escape from geographical obscurity - this was eased, some have claimed, because he was Leonid Brezhnev's illegitimate son - and then clothed himself, as only a real outsider could have the eye to do, in every stitch of Soviet imperial finery that Lenin's pleasuredome had to offer.

He moved to Moscow, and thence to be Pravda's Middle East correspondent. He spent much of the 1960s and 1970s spreading the gospel of socialism for Arab states weary of western imperialism. Thereafter he returned to Moscow, where he glided into the Kremlin's innermost twilight zone as part academic, part policy adviser, part political operator in his own right. Colleagues especially remember how, as the fortunes of Soviet power ebbed, Primakov would never drop his guard in public - nor, to any great degree, in private. When Brezhnev ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, it was noticed that, while Primakov never signed anything that advised against the adventure, he never signed anything in favour of it, either.

Under Gorbachev he attached himself to those who advised their leader to implement piecemeal reform to make the USSR work better. But as Gorbachev's power dwindled he returned to mainstream foreign affairs, earning himself at least the professional aversion of the then US secretary of state, James Baker, who saw him as an unsanctioned operator muddying the waters between the US and Gorbachev over negotiations with Saddam.

But speaking from Texas, Baker's tones rang more of admiration than annoyance. He said that Primakov, who across myriad Georgian meals and carefully selected vodka potions had displayed "a droll sense of humour", was "fairly accomplished . . . a good politician" and "smart and knowledgeable". He was not "a genuine hardliner". Others on the diplomatic scene also saw him sympathetically: the then US ambassador, Jack Matlock, admired his frugality - rare in a senior Soviet official - and charm.

After Gorbachev's fall, Primakov needed all his formidable interpersonal skills to survive. Yeltsin preserved him in charge of the FSB, the foreign portion of the now discredited and dismembered KGB. After the final collapse of reformist hopes in the summer of 1998 Primakov's parliamentary acceptability made him the only truly viable new prime minister.

In office Primakov began by slamming the scapegoats and making the noises required to persuade parliament and populace alike that their man was at last at the helm. Out went the hated economic technicians who, everyone felt, had listened for too long to the wreckers sent by Washington to destroy the country. In came good, solid men of the Soviet era who, people felt, would never gamble their factories and mills as fodder in some ghastly economic experiment invented late one night on a laptop computer. The nightmare, it was hoped, was over.

For the diehards, not so. Primakov's strategy, at the outset expressed in tones bloodcurdling for governments worldwide, has been in reality the pursuit of domestic policies remarkably similar to those of his immediate predecessors. The talk of rampant re-nationalisation has remained only talk, the war on corruption largely symbolic. A deluge of subsidies has gone to friendly industrial sectors but, once again, this was no large shift from previous priorities. Most of all, the prime economic aim has remained unchanged: to secure further IMF billions in order to pay at least some of Russia's more pressing debt payments.

Meanwhile the real big push has been one of old-fashioned machine politics, as dictated by the reality of Primakov's position. Every month since September, more and more of Primakov's FSB loyalists have been deployed to fill senior jobs within the government apparatus and, most critically, in Russia's state media networks. While he has remained suspicious of the limelight, Primakov is showing every sign of reaching for Yeltsin's crown.

He is a genuine contender. He also wants closer engagement with the west. The west must engage with him. The time for holding off has expired: the chances - scant at any stage - of being able to deal solely with non-Communist folk, wholly clean of KGB associations, have long since been extinguished. The prospects for a Primakov presidency are those of a hyper-pragmatic, gradualist progression towards national stability. The tone, some forecast, would be far more that of the 1980s than the early 1990s (although hopefully with more stable results). Some, such as Professor Archie Brown of Oxford University, note that Mikhail Gorbachev may "not be an outcast" in Primakov's Kremlin. In diplomatic terms, Primakov would be a handful - the kind of ally who would act on your behalf first and, in the words of one victim, "bike you round a copy afterwards". But all agree burying capitalism is the last thing on his mind.

The more disturbing question is whether, kept at arm's length and unaided by G7 governments, he will now make it to the senior job. It may be that his carefully assembled battalions and strengths will carry him to presidential victory even if he does fall out with Yeltsin, but there is still over a year to go; the events in Kosovo have not helped; nor has Yeltsin's sudden toxic reaction to a crown prince who, in Rifkind's words, "has become more popular than the emperor".

There is also the glaring problem that Primakov, hewn in the state's innermost heartlands of the foreign policy and security establishments, threatens the presidency's traditional spheres of influence; in Yeltsinland, prime ministers are supposed, one former ambassador says, "to oversee large tractor factories". Primakov has not conformed.

If Yeltsin does fire him, then western powers, by failing adequately to engage Primakov - or even, it seems, acquaint themselves adequately with him - may find their very last opportunity for relative international sanity has disappeared with him. The other genuine presidential runners - Yuri Luzhkov, Alexander Lebed and Gennady Zyuganov - are not play-acting civilised folk with whom you could pass the evening with your mother in her drawing-room. Unlike Primakov, they are the real thing: wilful, activist, and furious. He, by contrast, is diplomatic gold-dust, possibly the sole remaining Russian leader well-versed in the critical grammar of postwar pragmatism. Surrounded by rather more modern demagogues, he is unique; in the words of James Baker, "he's a survivor, for crying out loud".

Suitably inveigled (he is certainly no Milosevic fan), he could be a magic ingredient in a conclusive Kosovo settlement. Include him; make him look good; remind his people, at least a little, of the old days. Given the circumstances and lack of realistic alternatives, his political reversal would be truly tragic. He needs to be allowed, with his country, to come in from the cold. The question is how quickly, amid more pressing European security issues, this particular reality may be grasped.